Digging in the dirt. What lay behind the brutal visions of Francis Bacon? Lynn Barber ventures into the twilight world of a father-fixated, homosexual sado-masochist

Looking back at Francis Bacon

David Sylvester <em>Thames & Hudson, 272pp, £29.95 </em>

ISBN 050

Are we ready to look back at Francis Bacon? It is only eight years since he died, and most of the posthumous attention has focused on his Soho social life rather than his work. In any case, artists' reputations after their deaths often seem to go through a curious period of suspension, like those cartoon characters who go on running horizontally off the edge of a cliff until eventually they plummet. British artists usually do plummet - Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland are currently out of sight beneath the waves, although perhaps they will bob up again.

Francis Bacon is still pedalling in mid-air, not yet assigned to oblivion or apotheosis. He is an awkward case, because his work is easy to admire, but difficult to like. His power to shock has already lasted much longer than that of the "Sensation" shockers - 30 years against three - but shock alone is never enough to ensure survival. And the question remains: do his paintings really describe the human condition or merely the sado-masochistic gay condition? There was a line from Aeschylus he loved - "The reek of human blood smiles out at me". Perhaps these blokes on beds doing nasty things are just blokes on beds getting their jollies; perhaps the screams are screams of pleasure. It doesn't make him a less brilliant painter, but it makes him a less universal one.

David Sylvester is well equipped to look back at Francis Bacon because he and Bacon go back half a century. Sylvester first noticed Bacon's name when, as a schoolboy, he saw his 1933 Crucifixion reproduced in Herbert Read's Art Now. But Bacon then completely disappeared until after the war, when he emerged with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Sylvester started writing about him in 1948, and got to know him in 1950. Thereafter they were friends, and Sylvester served variously as Bacon's gatekeeper, critic, promoter, curator, illicit dealer and occasional model (although Sylvester was upset to notice that, when he sat for Bacon in 1953, the painter kept consulting a photograph of a rhinoceros - he said it was helpful for depicting the texture of the skin).

But Sylvester's most valuable role was as Bacon's Boswell. From 1962 to 1986, he recorded the great series of radio, television and print interviews that, in their final book form (Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1987), provide one of the richest, most fascinating insights into an artist's mind ever published. The present book is, by comparison, mere jots and titles, recycled catalogue notes and fragments of conversation that were omitted from the published Interviews. A typical fragment goes as follows:

"FB: I was thinking about your bedroom - that just to have Holland blinds would be better aesthetically, but that curtains make sex more comforting.

DS: Well, I'm sure curtains go very well with sex because they're there so often in pictures of sexual scenes. You yourself used to have curtains in your earliest pictures of having sex, but now the backgrounds are starker and the sex seems just as good.

FB: Yes, but in the more recent pictures it's pure sex. You know, I don't really like the billing and cooing of sex; I just like the sex itself. Do you think that's a homosexual thing?

DS: No. I think it can go right across the board."

If you like this sort of thing, there is a lot of it in Looking Back at Francis Bacon. It often strikes me that art books operate with different rules to normal books. There is absolutely no guarantee that a "new" art book contains any new text or even new thought; authors are allowed to recycle and plagiarise themselves, provided they have a new packaging. Looking Back is not as bad as some, but I would estimate that less than a quarter of the text is new, and what is new is often nugatory, as above. However, Sylvester's writing is always charming, even on its second or third outing, and the cover price is justified by the excellent illustrations, including 12 triptych fold-outs.

I was hoping, however, that this book would elucidate the mystery of the unknown, uncatalogued Bacons that have emerged since his death in 1992. It absolutely doesn't. Sylvester seems to accept them as genuine and includes a few in the illustrations, but offers no opinion on their quality and no explanation of their provenance. This is naughty - particularly when one of them is captioned "David Sylvester walking, c1954". Including the picture is tantamount to authenticating it, but Sylvester's only comment is that he knew nothing about it until several years after Bacon's death. Why not? In 1954, they were seeing each other frequently - surely Bacon would have shown it to him, or at least mentioned it? And Sylvester must have some opinion on whether the figure resembles him, or how it could have been mislaid all these years. He hints ominously that "there is reason to believe that a number of other unknown canvases are going to emerge". What makes him believe this? We ought to know; he ought to tell us.

Sylvester would be perfectly equipped to write the definitive biography of Bacon, but unfortunately he shows no signs of doing so. Nevertheless, the biographical note at the end of this book, with its very full and chatty footnotes, provides some fascinating glimpses. Daniel Farson was good on the gilded gutter life - the drinking, the gambling, the rent boys, the whole Soho galere - but Sylvester knew Bacon better at home, and knew a better man. He records Bacon's kindness to his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who lived with him until her death in 1951, and to a friend of Nanny Lightfoot's whom he continued to visit once a week until her death many years later. Bacon remarked in 1987 that "I've only taken on morality because I've had the money to do so", but Sylvester says firmly that "this was not true". Sylvester is observant and astute about Bacon's psychology. He notes that Bacon's lavish generosity was a "means of control", a way of avoiding obligation and dominating any social transaction, but he also suggests that it derived from a cynicism rooted in low self-esteem: "He believed he had to buy his way through life . . . He could be quite confused if people were utterly kind, asking for nothing in return. He expected them to behave badly and was rather relieved, it often seemed, when they did."

Nor is Sylvester afraid to risk Pseuds' Corner by delving into Freudian depths. He suggests that Bacon's Popes - Il Papa - were inspired by his father, of whom he said in the Interviews: "I disliked him, but I was sexually attracted to him when I was young. When I first sensed it, I hardly knew it was sexual. It was only later, through the grooms and the people in the stables I had affairs with, that I realised that it was a sexual thing towards my father." He also notes that two of the screaming faces that haunted Bacon - the nurse from The Battleship Potemkin and the mother from Nicolas Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents - are "induced by the same situation: the threat of infanticide by soldiery"; and he goes on to remind us that "Bacon was the son of an army captain, who was himself the son of a captain and the grandson of a general. He grew up in fear of his father, who despised him as a weakling. He had a lifelong devotion to his nanny . . . [who] was around when he was painting those cries." So this makes the screaming Popes - what? A conflation of his father attacking him as a child and his nanny defending him? It seems far-fetched. But then, can you think of a near-fetched explanation for screaming Popes? I feel that Sylvester has earned the right to be trusted for his intuition, even, or perhaps especially, when it seems completely off the wall. But as for a final judgement . . . we are still waiting.